Friday, June 9, 2017

My Thoughts About the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers Refugia Panel

Hard conversations seem to be happening simultaneously all over Twin Cities arts organizations these days.

Photo courtesy of the Guthrie. 

First it was the controversy over the Walker Art Center's Scaffold piece in the new sculpture garden. Then it was a truly excellent panel hosted by ALMA at Mixed Blood Theatre to discuss the recent production of West Side Story at the Ordway. And last night it was a conversation at the Guthrie Theater regarding their recent production of Refugia, which closes this weekend.

The panel was organized between the Guthrie and the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (TCTB) (full disclosure if you don't know already: I'm a member of that group; second disclosure: all opinions included here are solely my own and do not represent the group as a whole). This was the first time TCTB has reached out to try to organize such an event and to my knowledge the first time a reactionary panel has been set up to discuss a Guthrie season performance. I had a few thoughts moving forward about the process and conversation and I didn't want it to end with that single panel, ergo this post.

The panel moderator asked some really interesting questions of the audience during the Q and A session, and I didn't feel like we got the time to fully dive in as deeply as we should have. The most interesting to me was "What do you want to get out of this discussion?" I was glad to see this posed, as I think often when concerns are raised about a piece of art/action/event, it can feel like there is a lot of complaining without proactive solutions or that there isn't a clear end goal in sight. Speaking only for myself, there were two main goals I wanted to see coming from the Refugia panel, and they were:

1. To bring the Guthrie to the table to discuss the creative process. 

This goal was obviously successful with the creation of the panel. I was so glad to see the G be open to having a conversation rather than refusing to address serious concerns many in the community had about the piece (for reference, please check out Laura Van Zandt and Kory Pullam's excellent pieces, linked here and here). From what I saw, the process of creating the panel was relatively smooth and it was prioritized on the Guthrie's end, and that was really good to see. Although the makeup of the panel was lopsided in the end - I would have liked to see more parity in numbers between those who had concerns with the piece and the creators of the work itself - the fact that it happened at all is a win in my book. I hope this won't be the last time the Guthrie or The Moving Company hold such a conversation with the public if/when concerns are raised about future production.

2. To create proactive guidelines and plans to try to have an inclusive, intentionally diverse process for creating new works. 

This is the goal that I'm not sure has been achieved and was the muddiest takeaway (for me) from the Refugia panel conversation. Although the Guthrie and the Moving Company know that there are issues the community has with the piece, the discussion felt to me a little more like a brush off than a really difficult dive into evaluating the creative process. I would have really liked to see a more specific set of changes in play to create a transparent set of guidelines for creating new work and helping people not to be alienated in the process. As an institution that receives public funding (and as the recipient of a large amount of those funds), I do think the Guthrie and Moving Company, respectively, are beholden to try to maximize the use of those dollars in a way that is helpful for all communities moving forward, not just a niche set of patrons. Those conversations may be happening behind closed doors - we don't know! - but I didn't see much explicit address of this publicly in Wednesday's panel, and that was disappointing.

So where do we go from here? These questions - about how public funding is used for the arts, who is prioritized in those choices, how to address concerns once they are raised in an inclusive and respectful way, how to self-evaluate when something is not received as you wanted it to be, how to respect free speech while also being accountable - are all incredibly important, and no matter what I don't think a one hour (or even a 10 hour!) panel conversation could truly address all of those things. Personally, I'd love to participate in some ongoing conversations to proactively talk about how we set up projects (and receive them) from the ground up. Would you be interested in joining me? Please comment and let me know.

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